Should weight be added to employment discrimination standards?

Obese people have a hard time getting equal treatment in the workplace. That much has been known since a study proved it about a decade ago. But now a new study shows that the situation is much worse for women than men, the Washington Post reports.

The study, from Vanderbilt University Law School, looked at the correlation between weight classes of people and two types of jobs they might hold: “personal interaction jobs” and “physical activity jobs.”

The former consists of position with high communications such as sales positions. The latter included home health aid, day care and food preparation positions.

Women, the data showed, are increasingly less likely to work the higher paying jobs and increasingly more likely to work the lower paying jobs as they become heavier. Men, on the other hand, see no such gradual effect. “No matter the occupation, obese men seem to do just as well” as normal-weight men,” (Jennifer) Shinall (the study’s author) said. “That’s just not the case for obese women.”

The reasons for the disproportionate effect that women’s weight appears to have on their employment are unclear. Beauty, or attractiveness, have long been tied to better pay, both among men and women. Everything from one’s height to one’s hair color and fitness have been found to affect one’s career. Economist Daniel Hamermesh, who is well-versed on the topic, has written a book about the correlation between attractiveness and compensation, appropriately titled “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful.”

The role that appearance plays in determining one’s pay, while present for sexes, has in some cases been proven to be more pronounced for men than women, at least by Hamermesh. But in many others, it’s been the reverse, said Shinall. “There’s been quite a bit of research in the more general appearance context that suggests a woman’s appearance is more important on the job than a man’s,” she said. There’s also the possibility that this particular gender pay gap is an extension of the more general pay gap that persists between men and women in the United States, which has been as pronounced as it has been persistent.

So what?

Shinall’s reason for doing the research is a legal one. The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. She’s considering whether weight should be a sixth category.

“The data is highly suggestive of job discrimination against obese individuals, especially against obese women,” she said in a Vanderbilt article on the research.

According the Vanderbilt, Shinall’s background piqued her interest on the question. She used to be a dancer and saw how opportunities evaporated as weight increased.